Hats off to Steven Learner, whose Steven Learner Studio boasts a portfolio of luxury residences, elevated galleries, green structures, and non-profit projects. For the past few years, he’s devoted himself to Collective Design —the fair Learner founded to highlight notable 20th and 21st century design as the industry flocks to New York in May. Guided by New York's design council, Learner and a handful of architects, designers and gallerists—like Evan Snyderman, Cristina Grajales and Nessia Pope—have curated a niche design community. The third Collective Design takes place May 13 to 17, 2015 at Skylight Clarkson Sq.
Here he shares his thoughts on creating closeness within our industry, integrating technology into his practice, and laying the groundwork for New York Design Week.
Interior Design: In addition to your inspired design and architecture portfolio, you helm Collective Design in New York City. What sets this apart from other design fairs?
Steven Learner: Collective Design was created to fill the need for an international event for 20th and 21st century design in New York. Several of us in the design community recognized this gap and came together to create an educational and commercial platform. Now in its third year, the fair continues to gain support from an expanding group of designers, collectors and gallerists. One benefit of being new and from outside the “fair world” is that we can create a new model, with no preconceptions—continually evolving and staying fresh.
ID: A fair of this nature, which counts many exciting and auspicious design minds as its driving forces, speaks to a great sense of community in the industry. In what ways does this fair galvanize the community? What inspired you to take on this huge endeavor, and how would you like to see it grow?
SL: The premise was to include many voices in our planning, outreach and, ultimately, in the design of the fair. We sat down at the beginning and considered our diverse points of view to curate the galleries we invite, to develop the programming we present and to design a new experience for visiting a fair. Our engagement continues throughout the year. We support galleries’ programs, visit designer’s studios, and participate in events, culminating with the fair in mid-May in New York. I want Collective Design to grow as it began, and continue to include new voices from the international design community, to provide an outlet for young designers and galleries, and to be a forum for discussing the current state of design.
ID: What are some design challenges you’re having fun working out?
SL: My most exciting challenge each year is designing the floor plan for Collective Design. It’s an open and irregular plan with an opportunity to create interesting juxtapositions of vintage and contemporary material, and established and young galleries. Each visitor gets a unique experience of walking the fair.
ID: How do see Collective Design working in tandem with ICFF?
SL: ICFF was always a standalone event and trade show. Now there’s ICFF, Wanted Design, Collective Design… It’s become New York Design Week, in the spirit of New York Fashion Week.
ID: You’ve done a lot of inspiring gallery work. What’s your take on creating spaces that showcase artwork?
SL: As the art market has grown exponentially, the practice of looking at and buying art has shifted in many ways to the fair experience and that intrigues me. Art fairs have become an exclusive social event. Collective Design is an inclusive fair, inviting everyone to discover design. We welcome designers, curators, and collectors but also those new to design. Visitors are introduced to the fair with bookstores and installations that you can enjoy without buying a ticket and there’s an intentionally manageable number of galleries to visit—not more than you can absorb in a day.
ID: What tech advances have most impacted your work life?
SL: I’m excited to see two contrasting interests in the fields of architecture and design; the resurgence of craft and the real applications of new technologies. From objects designed with a computer and produced by hand, to Norman Foster’s 3D-printed concrete structures, there’s a new generation of “maker” that is continuing or revitalizing old traditions by using new technologies. These feel like sustainable models for design and production in the long term.
ID: When taking on the design of a public space, how do you prioritize the notions of design appeal, brand, durability, and social responsibility?
SL: I’m interested in the experience of the body moving through space. That comes first for me. Public spaces, like art galleries, call for a quiet dialogue between the work and the space, dictating simplicity and humble, durable materials.
ID: How involved do you like clients to be in the process? Is there an art to fielding client input, both with residences and with public spaces?
SL: The best client is an informed and involved client. I’ve been fortunate in my practice to work within the art and design world. My clients have been so visually exposed that their eyes are trained. This gives me such an advantage in the process, when a client understands the creative process and is willing to take risks.
ID: What keeps you excited about the design world?
SL: I get excited by discovery. In London this fall I was enthralled by three amazing discoveries—during a studio visit, lunch at a new restaurant concept, and over dinner at the home of a friend. In the studio of James Plumb, I was seduced by the odd and wonderful joining of a Chesterfield sofa-coffee table to create a home-hybrid and lampshades made from pleated indigo skirts. At the restaurant Tincan I learned that there is more to canned foods than anchovies, and that the tins are beautiful capsules of graphic design. And at dinner with Nikki Tibbles, I learned that in addition to creating floral arrangements for the world’s most glamorous events, she is a passionate animal activist, rescuing dogs from desperate situations around the globe.
ID: Given your experience with the fair, what’s your perspective on the community spirit of the design world?
SL: I’m very proud of the spirit we’ve created with Collective Design. Traditionally there has been intense competition between galleries, and yet we’ll see gallerists—who are among the most passionate, educated professionals in our industry—bringing their clients from booth to booth. There’s such a communal spirit occurring. This is particularly evident in our “Collective Conversations” events, in which the community really comes together. Rather than traditional presentations, these are truly open-ended conversation.